Hoarder's neighbour opens up about what he endured, repeated complaints in decade before Jurong East fire
After having sent close to a hundred e-mails to various authorities over nine years about his next-door neighbours' hoarding habit and the attendant fire risk, Mr Kumar's worst fears came true when a fire broke out in the early hours of Aug 16.
Noises that sounded like explosions from outside his ninth-storey flat in Block 236 Jurong East Street 21 roused Mr Kumar and his two tenants.
They saw a wall of fire so high it licked the ceiling outside the flat.
Acrid, black smoke crept in through the gaps in the windows and doors, and filled the flat with the "poisonous" smell of burning plastic, he recalled.
"I thought my life would end there," said the 56-year-old, who declined to give his full name.
The three men were rescued by the Singapore Civil Defence Force. Mr Kumar said the first thing he did was to ask the firefighters if his neighbours had managed to get out.
Ms Huang Xiumei, 50, survived. But her brother Mr Huang Mingquan, 48, perished in the fire.
Mr Kumar said he was saddened by his death, which need not have happened if the hoarding behaviour had been addressed. His experience reflects the daunting task that those living next to a hoarder face in trying to change their situation.
Since he bought his four-room flat in 2012, he had spoken to Yuhua MP Grace Fu several times and written to the Housing Board, National Environment Agency, his town council and even the Ministry of National Development (MND) to seek action on the hoarding.
In a response to queries from The Straits Times, Ms Fu, who is also Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, said Mr Kumar's feedback was taken seriously and HDB, the town council and grassroots leaders had worked to engage his neighbour.
"I understand that the family has been unresponsive, ignoring the calls of HDB and the town council," she said. "Over time, their immediate family members have moved out. Only the owner and his sister resided in the flat."
But Mr Kumar, who is staying with his tenants in a one-room rental flat provided by HDB while they can make other arrangements, feels that not enough action was taken to make sure that the hoarding would stop.
He said that though the corridor would be cleared by the authorities after his complaints, items would soon accumulate again. And so the cycle continued.
"To be frank, I was expecting the fire any time," he added. "I tried my level best to convince the authorities, each and every one, that there's a fire issue. But nobody took care of it."
Among the items his neighbours collected were plastic bottles, cans, shoes and old clothes, piled up in plastic bags.
"It smelled like rotten food," he said. "Really suffocating."
Mr Kumar said it was so bad that he did not want to go home when he was out or leave his home once he returned, as he dreaded walking past the hoard of items.
"Other people always open their doors. But once I open my door, the smell comes in," he said. "I hate this place."
He said that in 2012, he applied for a Build-to-Order (BTO) flat at Skyline II, a development at Bukit Batok Street 22. But when it was time to collect the keys in 2017, he could not sell his current place, even after a three-month extension from HDB before payments would be due.
Mr Kumar said three property agents conducted 20 viewings over six months, but no one made an offer because of his neighbours.
He said he had to forfeit $30,000, which was the deposit for the BTO flat, and other fees.
In 2013, the family decided that his homemaker wife and three-year-old daughter, who is allergic to dust, would return to India to live with his in-laws. Mr Kumar's 22-year-old son still lives in the flat, but was overseas when the fire occurred.
"I want to make a living. That's why I didn't go back with them," the IT analyst said, still hopeful that he could one day sell the flat and reunite with his family. "I miss my daughter a lot. I didn't experience her childhood with her."
Asked if he had tried to engage his neighbours, Mr Kumar said he could not communicate with them, as they spoke Mandarin.
He said he hopes the authorities will take stricter enforcement action against hoarders, for instance by conducting periodic checks and taking action if there is persistent and excessive clutter in a flat.
"From my perspective, they're not taking enough action. It's not effective," he said.